Asking why Labor stands for nothing

Review article: Power Crisis, by Rodney Cavalier, Cambridge University Press, $34.99 and
All That’s Left: What Labor Should Stand For, Edited by Nick Dyrenfurth and Tim Soutphommasane UNSW Press, $29.95

Labor’s near death election experience has left the party stunned. As it tries to make sense of the disaster a growing number of party loyalists are recognising that, to most people, Labor stands for nothing. But none are prepared to get to the root of the problem—the party’s swing to the right that began under Hawke and Keating.

The election result was the party’s fourth lowest primary vote since 1910, Climate Change Minister Greg Combet pointed out, in his speech at the launch of All That’s Left. Its popularity has slumped further since, with its primary vote at just 35 per cent in a Nielsen poll at the end of November.

Senator and elder statesman John Faulkner has moaned, “We are struggling with the perception we are wholly and solely driven by polling and focus groups”. The dominant NSW Right faction has been blamed for this obsession with polling and the party’s lack of ideas.

Their efforts have dragged Labor into crisis in NSW. The party has chewed through three premiers in the space of two years and faces annihilation at the state election in March.

Rodney Cavalier sets out to examine the problems in NSW in his new book, Power Crisis. Former Education Minister in NSW under the Wran and Unsworth Labor governments from 1984 to 1988, Cavalier has a reputation as a fierce but loyal critic of the party. His book has even been christened, “a worthy 21st-century successor to V.G. Childe’s… How Labour Governs” by labour historian Ross Fitzgerald. But the book doesn’t live up to that promise.

It charts former Premier Morris Iemma’s disastrous pursuit of power privatisation, and the campaign against it inside the party that brought down the Premier. Cavalier rails at the takeover of the party by a layer of staffers and professional apparatchiks, and even acknowledges the disappearance of a Left that maintains any kind of ideological values. He identifies with the frustration of ordinary Labor members at their lack of control over the party.

But his remedy is to end union influence inside Labor. The campaign against privatisation in NSW itself shows how faulty the idea this is any solution is. Opposition to privatisation in NSW galvanised the rank-and-file membership in a way no issue has for years. At the NSW party conference in 2008 it was the combination of the rank-and file membership and the unions, against the party MPs, that voted against the sell-off. Both the right and left wing unions voted this way.

Cavalier is blind to this because he actually supports privatisation. For him the failure in the debate was that Iemma did not do enough to sell privatisation to the party members. He laments that, “Iemma’s strategic error was not taking his cause beyond the closed meetings of union officials into the ranks of the party below.”

All too often, union officials are prepared to cut deals with Labor MPs and allow them to get away with policies like privatisation—as eventually happened in NSW. And union officials are frequently so focused on grabbing their own parliamentary seat that they collude in the factional horse-trading that preserves the status quo in the party.

But, as the struggle over privatisation in NSW shows, they are also capable of fighting Labor MPs in their pursuit of right-wing, anti-worker policies. The history of the Labor Party shows that it is the parliamentary party, not the unions, that have been responsible for leading the party’s race to the right. It was Hawke and Keating that led the party’s embrace of neo-liberal policies with their agenda of wage cutting through the Accord in the 1980s. Far too few unions resisted. But those that did, like the pilots’ and the Builders’ Labourers Federation, were smashed through the use of the courts and the police by the Labor government.

The drive to the right by Labor’s parliamentary representatives has continued in more recent times—for instance over refugees. The party’s capitulation to the Liberals’ racism against refugees in 2001 (which has continued in Julia Gillard’s efforts as Prime Minister to outdo the Liberals) was also driven by the parliamentary Labor Party but resisted by unions and the rank-and-file.

Labor for Refugees was formed after the 2001 election to campaign for a more humanitarian refugee policy. It drew support from within both Left and Right factions—and crucial to its success was the support of right-wing union leaders like John Robertson and Paul Howes in NSW.

Diminishing the influence of the unions inside Labor would only allow the MPs and the party apparatus to drag it further to the right. This is precisely the “third way” project advocated by right-wing leaders like former British Labour Party leader Tony Blair or Mark Latham in Australia.

However distorted, the influence of the union officials gives Labor a connection with the working class movement. This means there is pressure on the MPs to represent the interests of the union officials, whose positions rest on their ability to deliver better wages and working conditions to ordinary union members. Severing the link would take the party in the direction of the US Democratic Party, which poses as a “progressive” party but relies on a section of big business for its support.

The rise of The Greens
The loss of a section of Labor’s support base to The Greens at the federal election is not widely understood by the party.

The attitudes expressed in the new collection All that’s Left: What Labor should stand for are a prime example. At most, Labor supporters view The Greens as a product of inner city demographics, a result of well-off university educated progressives deserting the party. So Lindsay Tanner claims in his contribution to the collection that, “The Greens are, first and last, a product of higher education”. He even claims that Greens voters have, “limited interest in the traditional Labor themes of solidarity and redistribution”.

The shift to The Greens is not simply a protest vote around social issues like gay marriage, climate change and refugees. Many Greens voters are working class, for instance left-wing unionists. This is shown by the public support of the ETU and the fire fighters’ union for the Greens at the recent federal election, as well as the CFMEU, which called for a Greens vote in the Senate.

Although The Greens also win some of their votes from former Liberal voters, a study of voters’ attitudes from the 2004 and 2007 elections indicates Greens voters on average were more left-wing than supporters of any other party on economic questions like privatisation and workers’ rights. Part of The Greens vote represents a working class social democratic constituency.

Nor is The Greens vote the only indication of Labor’s shrinking support base. Both the informal vote and the number of those who refused to vote altogether rose at the federal election. As Tim Colebatch wrote in The Age, “the number not voting has risen from 5.2 per cent last time to 6.8 per cent, an 85-year high”, and importantly “it rose most in safe Labor seats. Of the 30 seats with the biggest growth in the numbers not voting, 23 were Labor seats”. The story is equally grim for Labor when it comes to informal votes, where, “The 14 seats with the highest informal votes were all Labor seats in western Sydney”.

This shows the erosion of Labor’s core working class support base as well—a process that has been particularly obvious since the Hawke government took power in the 1980s.

Labor pioneered neo-liberalism in Australia under the Hawke-Keating government, doing for Australian capitalism what Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan did for Britain and the US respectively. This was a drastic shift to the right that has only continued. It saw a wave of privatisations, caps on government spending and wage cutting.

Labor has abandoned the social democratic policies like defence of the welfare state, public ownership of services and government spending to improve the lives of ordinary people it was once identified with. The result is that is has become virtually indistinguishable from the Liberals over most of the key issues of political policy.

But the key contributors to All that’s Left are firmly wedded to these pro-business policies. One thinks criticism of neo-liberalism is “interminable and tiresome”, and that there is still too much state intervention. A chapter on “progressive economics” advocates “market design”  to somehow ensure the free market doesn’t forget to think about social costs.  The editors conclude that Labor’s big mistake was to dump Rudd. Apparently that meant Labor wasn’t able to get the electoral benefit of what a good job it had done in its first term.

Labor’s capitulation to the interests of big business is due to more than just bad leadership. It is a product of Labor’s belief that it can bring about change by taking government. So the party has always set out to run capitalism—and since the end of the “long boom” in the 1970s this has meant accepting neo-liberal policies in an effort to restore capitalist profitability.

Minor adjustments to party policy over a few issues like climate change or same-sex marriage will not be enough to stem the drain of support to The Greens. Labor’s crisis goes much deeper than that.

By James Supple


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